Commentary

Goodell could get another tool to defend sport

With the owners meeting set to begin Monday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell hopes owners will accept a lower standard of proof in cases involving integrity -- particularly spying, John Clayton writes.

Originally Published: March 18, 2008
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The theme heading into the NFL owners meeting is integrity. Coming off Spygate and the 49ers' tampering penalty, commissioner Roger Goodell must make sure the game is as clean as possible.

Give Goodell credit. He's willing to confront tough issues. Although it can be debated whether his penalty against Patriots coach Bill Belichick for the illicit taping was too light, Goodell and the NFL acted quickly once they found something illegal had occurred. Even though the evidence of 49ers tampering in a possible deal for Lance Briggs was sketchy, Goodell came down hard and took away a fifth-round choice and lowered San Francisco's draft position in the third round.

At the owners meeting, which officially starts Monday, Goodell looks for more tools to defend his sport. On March 6, Goodell sent a memo to the competition committee to study measures to enforce rules involving the integrity of the game. The committee came back with recommendations. Goodell and the league came up with a possible solution.

Without getting into too much legalese, Goodell hopes to have the owners accept a lower standard of proof in cases involving integrity -- particularly those where spying is suspected.

"The analogy is in the criminal world," said Ray Anderson, the NFL's vice president of football operations. "It's the proof beyond a reasonable doubt. In the civil world, it's preponderance of the evidence, meaning more likely than not that something occurred. So we are looking to enforce a standard of proof that would be more in line with preponderance of the evidence."

In other words, given the preponderance of evidence standard, Goodell can take the appearance of spying and level harsh penalties. This could have an impact on Spygate.

Unless new evidence turns up, Spygate is over as far as Goodell and the NFL are concerned. The Patriots lost a first-round choice and $250,000. Belichick was fined $500,000. After a quick investigation, it was determined Belichick had ordered the taping of other teams' signals. He handed over those tapes. Although he didn't think he was doing anything against the rules, Belichick -- according to Goodell -- admitted he had been taping signals for years. The six tapes were destroyed. In Goodell's eyes, the case was closed.

Matt Walsh, a former Patriots videographer who may have more evidence of the team's covert taping, has been negotiating with league lawyers before he discusses Spygate. Goodell has always said he would reopen Spygate if there is new evidence.

That's where the "preponderance of evidence" discussion could produce an interesting twist to the Spygate case. If Walsh testifies after the owners meeting and has new evidence, the standard of proof against Belichick might be less, and the coach could face a possible suspension based on a lower standard of proof. There isn't a double jeopardy provision in Goodell's original decision on taping signals.

Goodell said at the Pro Bowl that Belichick had signed a document that he turned over all evidence involving spying. If there is another level of spying and evidence Belichick hasn't presented or knew of and didn't fess up to, Goodell has the authority to act again. After all, he would have caught Belichick in a lie and the coach would have to pay for that lie.

It's pretty obvious from Goodell's actions that he believes Belichick has given him everything in regards to Spygate. The commissioner has said on numerous occasions that he has seen no additional evidence against Belichick that would merit further penalties.

Nevertheless, Walsh isn't going away. Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter isn't going to stop ripping Goodell for not interviewing Walsh. Specter, currently on a book tour, wants to know whether all information regarding Spygate has been released. A smart politician, he knows mentioning Walsh in any national forum will draw headlines.

I think Goodell must clear the air about Walsh, who will determine whether Spygate lives or dies. If Walsh has evidence to implicate Belichick for doing more spying, it must be aired. If he has nothing, we need to know that, too. The integrity of the sport must be the highest concern.

Out of Spygate, though, comes a lot of good, and the lower standard of proof in a future case will be a great deterrent to such an incident occurring again.

"The main thing is accountability from top to bottom in protecting integrity and maintaining the confidence of our fans," Anderson said. "That's what we're looking for in terms of integrity and fair competition moving forward."

If all goes right this week, the NFL will have spot checks involving spying. There will be spot checks in coaches' boxes. There will be spot checks along the sidelines. Now and forever, the NFL will be watching.

This week, the NFL is expected to add more technology to the mix by allowing defensive players to get radio communication from coaches. The competition committee, which has advocated radio helmets for defensive players the past two years, was two votes shy of getting them a year ago. But the league must make sure the technology can't be picked up and used against the defensive teams.

Specter considers spying in the NFL as similar to stealing insider information in the business community. That's probably an overreaction, but spying does affect the integrity of the sport.

The dialogue about this issue and the potential results this week are all good for the NFL.

John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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